President Rocks: University Puget Sound President Ronald R. Thomas reflects on music and the '60s

December 13, 2007

By Paul Schrag
Weekly Volcano

When Ronald R. Thomas assumed the mantle of University of Puget Sound president in 2003, then Board Chair William T. Weyerhaeuser said, "Ron Thomas is an outstanding choice to lead Puget Sound at this time in the school's history. He clearly understands Puget Sound's commitment to its liberal arts mission, and he demonstrates the skills needed to advance the university's strength and reputation within American higher education."

Sounds good, Bill, but you forgot to mention that Ron Thomas rocks.

A child of the '60s, Thomas went to Woodstock, worked with Jesse Jackson during his rise, and mentions hip-hop among traditions carrying out the intentions of all those baby boomers. We're going to skip most of his credentials here, but will say that he is erudite at the very least. He also likes hippie stuff.

"I was a Bob Dylan fan before it was cool," says Thomas, who was immersed in revolutionary music while attending ultra-conservative Wheaton College in Chicago.

"Because I was in Chicago during the '60s, I got to see a lot of wonderful things happen."

The old Chinese curse "May you live in interesting times" became a blessing for Thomas, who was reared in a conservative Christian household and welcomed the chance to become part of a broader world. While growing up in Ocean Grove, NJ, Thomas sat behind E-Street Band bass player Gary Tallent in home room at Neptune High School. When he escaped small-town life, he dove into what was then counterculture with missionary zeal. He worked with Jesse Jackson during his rise. He was there for the Democratic Convention riots, spent a lot of time in the relatively racy coffee house scene, and spent a great deal of time protesting the Vietnam War in between studies. He did the '60s right by all accounts.

"They say nine out of 10 people who you talk to about that time say that they were at Woodstock," he says. "I actually was."

These days, Thomas listens to a lot of Jazz and continues to follow the evolution of favorites such as Bob Dylan. His current playlist includes Miles Davis' "Kind of Blue," Dylan's "Modern Times" and anything by hometown hero Bruce Springsteen. He includes Alicia Keys on his list of current innovators, and says underground hip-hop is carrying on the spirit of revolutionary music. He also acknowledges the growing difficulty of using music as a platform for social change.

"It's a lot harder to sustain political action when you're part of a multi-billion dollar industry," he says.